Standing Guard Over Europe

American troops in Europe were never meant to be a part of NATO-but they've been there for 33 years.

On April 4, 1949, in a ceremony described by the New York Times as a "restrained affair," President Harry Truman and 11 other heads of state put their signatures to the North Atlantic Treaty. After the signing, Truman spoke briefly and solemnly of the event. Secretary of State Dean Acheson glorified the pact in language thick with biblical allusions. On the front page of the April 5 Times, above a large and reverent photograph of the ceremony, ran the headline: "A Historic Event in Our Nation's Capital."

Within Congress and among the public at large, months of intense and often acrimonious debate regarding the treaty had preceded the signing. The debate continued with increasing bitterness through late July, when the Senate would vote on ratification of the treaty. Skeptics wondered how much and what kind of US arms aid would go to European nations. They wanted to know how- and by whom-the treaty's mutual-assistance agreement would be interpreted. During Senate hearings on the treaty, Truman-administration officials admitted that European negotiators had sought further American involvement, including arms aid, an "automatic war" clause, and even the provision of US troops, but the officials denied that the pact harbored any such obligations. Treaty opponents viewed those assurances with skepticism and proposed reservations explicitly protecting congressional war powers and the right to reject any subsequent arms-assistance legislation.

One issue that did not enter into debate, however, was the question of a large US-troops presence in Europe as part of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) army: that possibility seemed so remote-so fully outside of any reasonable interpretation of the US role in NATO-that treaty critics submitted no specific reservation on the subject. Indeed, a large peacetime alliance army was not contemplated at all. Proponents of the treaty portrayed it exclusively as a joint guarantee, a warning to the Soviet Union or any other would-be aggressor that a "divide and conquer" strategy would be futile.

Throughout the Senate's ratification proceedings, the issue of US troops for NATO received scant attention. One notable exception occurred during Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the treaty. Iowa Republican Bourke Hickenlooper asked Secretary of State Acheson whether the United States would "be expected to send substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution to the development of these countries' capacity to resist." Acheson replied: "The answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.' " (Acheson and other administration officials noted that the United States already maintained two divisions-about 100,000 troops-in Germany as part of the Allied occupation force. But as soon as a German peace treaty could be negotiated, those troops were to be withdrawn, a plan that still seemed plausible in 1949.)

With seemingly satisfactory assurances of a clearly limited US role in the defense pact, the Senate, by a vote of 82 to 13, ratified the treaty. Yet by the end of 1951, within little more than two years after ratification, some 200,000 US troops shipped out for Europe for NATO duty-thus putting the number of American soldiers stationed in Europe at 300,000. In 1984, 33 years later, those troops are a large component of a US contribution to NATO worth between $70 billion and $130 billion a year (depending on what is counted as part of that contribution)-an arrangement by which US taxpayers fund more than half of NATO's cost.

Today, throughout the United States, America's future role in NATO is increasingly being questioned. Citizens of diverse political persuasions express resentment toward the Western European nations, charging an uncooperative attitude and an apparent unwillingness to bear their "fair share" of the alliance's defense burdens. Highly publicized demonstrations in various NATO countries against the deployment of new American intermediate-range missiles (which the European governments originally requested) have exacerbated this annoyance. Discontent with the attitude and performance of the European alliance members has even penetrated establishment organizations such as the ardently pro-European Atlantic Council of the United States. Critics such as columnist William Safire and noted military analysts Jeffrey Record and Robert Hanks question the wisdom of subsidizing the defense of prosperous economic competitors four decades after World War II, and they wonder aloud whether NATO itself may have outlived its usefulness.

The continuing presence of 300,000 US soldiers in Western Europe is one of the most controversial aspects of the US role in NATO. Dissension regarding that issue has flared before. President Truman's original decision in late 1950 to station large numbers of American ground forces in Europe provoked an acrimonious confrontation with Congress-the "Great Debate"-and Truman's policy barely emerged from that struggle intact. During the late 1960s and early '70s, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) repeatedly introduced a resolution mandating the reduction of American forces in Europe by half. His proposal attracted considerable support, but the Nixon administration and a bipartisan interventionist coalition in the Senate defeated it in 1971.

Now, for the first time since the failure of the Mansfield amendment, substantial sentiment in Congress and throughout the country has emerged for reducing, if not entirely withdrawing, American troops from Europe. Even many ardent critics of current policy, however, do not realize that Truman's original commitment to provide ground forces for the North Atlantic alliance was intended to be a strictly temporary measure. Those units were to remain on the continent only until the Western European states could raise, equip, and train sufficient forces of their own. Substantial evidence- including some recently declassified documents-supports that conclusion. A decision to withdraw US troops, therefore, would hardly constitute the betrayal of any sacred trust-rather, it would represent a return to an original policy objective that the other NATO members systematically eroded during the past three decades.

The establishment of NATO did not alter the fundamental military equation in Europe. Everyone involved in this geopolitical struggle realized that the Soviet bloc possessed an overwhelming superiority of conventional forces on the continent and that America's nuclear arsenal and strategic air power, not any NATO army, would remain the principal deterrent to Russian aggression. The NATO pact merely made the linkage of American and European security interests explicit, warning Moscow that the United States would not view an attack upon Westen Europe with indifference. In all probability, the Kremlin leadership already reached that conclusion months, if not years, earlier.

Allied officials did view the disparity in conventional military strength between communist and noncommunist Europe with some concern, especially after America's atomic monopoly ended in August 1949. The Soviets' development of a nuclear capability portended long term difficulties for NATO, since the credibility of the US strategic deterrent in providing protection to Western Europe was inevitably to wane. Nevertheless, Truman-administration officials did not consider any contribution of American troops to a buildup of NATO's conventional forces until the summer of 1950. The top-secret comprehensive strategic plan (DC-6, "Strategic Concept for the Defense of the North Atlantic Area") adopted by NATO's Defense Committee in December 1949 and approved by President Truman the following month contained no hint whatever that the United States would expand its troop commitment to Europe. Administration policy was confined to programs of financial assistance and transfers of armaments to help the European governments build up their own armed forces.

The onset of the Korean conflict in 1950 altered Washington's position regarding European defense in several important ways. Almost immediately the various Western European governments feared that the Soviets might instigate a similar military assault in their region. They noted a disturbing analogy between Korea and Germany, each nation suffering under an artificial division with a well-armed communist regime confronting a pro-Western government possessing meager military resources. During July and August of 1950, the European allies inundated the Truman administration with proposals for a buildup of NATO's conventional forces and the inclusion of West Germany within the defense perimeter. These plans invariably called for the United States to contribute a large military contingent to an integrated NATO army and appoint an American general to command allied forces.

Dean Acheson and the State Department bureaucracy favored these proposals, but Pentagon officials were less enthusiastic. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were united in opposing further US obligations unless the other NATO members met certain conditions, including acceptance of West German rearmament (a step vehemently opposed in France and several other countries) and a firm commitment to strengthen their own defense capabilities. Even then, Pentagon leaders emphasized that the United States should only undertake these new responsibilities temporarily.

After much internal wrangling, the Truman administration adopted a new and more vigorous leadership role within the North Atlantic alliance. The State and Defense departments prepared a document that embodied these changes. In September 1950 the National Security Council approved the document (NSC-82), which was declassified in mid-1983. Though NSC-82 represented a compromise between State Department and Defense Department positions on the US role in NATO, the Defense Department's position emerged victorious in several crucial areas. Administration officials agreed to station an additional four divisions in Europe as part of a combined NATO force, "based on the expectation" that this action "will be met with similar efforts on the part of the other nations involved." The policy paper emphasized that the United States "should make it clear that it is now squarely up to the European signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty to provide the balance of the forces required for the initial defense." Firm programs for the development of adequate European forces represented "a prerequisite" for the fulfillment of the new American commitment.

Although the National Security Council also agreed that the United States should appoint the first commander of NATO defense forces, there were stringent conditions attached to that proposed action as well. Appointment of an American general was contingent upon the Europeans assuring that "they will provide sufficient forces, including adequate German units, to constitute a command reasonably capable of fulfilling its responsibilities. " The ultimate US objective was to "assist" the European nations to provide a defense capable of deterring or meeting an attack: "When this objective is achieved it is hoped that the United States will be able to leave to the European nation-members the primary responsibility...of maintaining and commanding such a force."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement